Last Sunday, President Obama warned us that Donald Trump couldn’t be trusted with the nuclear codes. A week later, not only do we know that Trump will get those codes, but he’s shown us who he’d like to guide him in crises that might require their use. Stephen Bannon, the former chairman of Breitbart News, has been tapped as the new president’s Chief Strategist and Senior Counselor.
Who is Stephen Bannon? He is the man who boasted about turning Breitbart into “the platform for the alt-right.” Now, “alt-right” is one of those words Westerners make up to pretend that they don’t suffer from the same flaws and faults as other, less civilized peoples. Were this a New York Times article about a faraway continent, for example, we’d be blunter. “Alt-right” is just another term for racist. White supremacist. Anti-Semitic. Hateful.
And now powerful.
This alarms me not just because I’m a Muslim contemplating the rise of an Islamophobe, which is terrifying enough, but because Bannon has also happily fomented hatred against Jews on his site. Indeed, Bannon’s appointment was predictably celebrated by David Duke and the leader of the American Nazi party. Let me explain what so bothers me about this, beyond the obvious.
In the past, while Trump’s campaign has unleashed anti-Semitism, winked at and coddled neo-Nazis, and been endorsed by the KKK, Trump himself never seemed to propose anything that directly targeted Jewish Americans. That didn’t excuse his refusal to condemn the anti-Semitism espoused in his name. But I always assumed his first targets would be those explicitly named by his draconian policies: Muslims and Latinos. Yet here we are now, with all of us in the same boat.
Trump’s appointment of Stephen Bannon tells us much about how the new president intends to govern, none of it good. But it also alerted me to the fact that I didn’t take anti-Semitism seriously enough this election. I want to dwell on this, because it compounds the tragedy of Trump’s victory for me personally. I’m an American Muslim who joined the Shalom Hartman Institute after being deeply moved and transformed by my participation in their Muslim Leadership Initiative. I learned that despite substantive differences over, of course, Israel and Palestine, I could and must develop genuine relationships of trust and mutual benefit with mainstream North American Jewish communities. I realized that a democratic, pluralistic North America is not just good for, but necessary for both our communities—and for the causes we separately or jointly pursue, here and abroad.
Since then, I’ve encouraged Muslim leaders across North America to join these conversations, not in order for us to change our individual politics—I remain committed to a single-state, binational solution for Israel-Palestine, for example—but to introduce a deep humanity and mutual regard within these conversations, so that any path we pursue in achieving our political objectives is neither prejudicial nor harmful to the rights and freedoms of others.
And yet despite these years of work, I still I didn’t see this coming.
This admission is not, however, meant merely as an apology from me, a self-flagellation in digital form. It is a commitment to do more. One thing I learned from my time at Hartman was how much more pervasive anti-Semitism was among some Muslims than I’d wanted to admit. One thing I learned over the last week was just how much more pervasive anti-Semitism is among some Americans than I would have guessed, and it’s terrifying to recognize how far and how fast that bias has come into the mainstream.
Given the threats posed to both the American Muslim and Jewish communities, then, we refuse to work together at our own peril.
Because as Wajahat Ali, author of the groundbreaking Fear, Inc., study of Islamophobia, told me, “the alt-right appeals to the anger and frustration of straight white men. It is part of this global last gasp of white supremacy, coming together. The primary targets of such prejudice will be Muslims and Jews, and blacks and immigrants.”
Stephen Bannon and the alt-right may have imagined that Muslims and Jews would rather mistrust and fear each other than work together to stop them.
I intend to prove them very, very wrong.